Cape Town’s Silly Extra Tariff for Saving Water

The City of Cape Town has given ratepayers until January 15, 2018, to respond to its proposal to impose a penalty fee on rateable properties to offset the drop in income from reduced water usage during the drought. As a ratepayer, this is my comment on the proposal:

The additional charge is quite inappropriate, even if it is not an excessive amount. However, it is the principle that matters in this instance. It is simply wrong in law and in social purpose, that one is charged for something which is entirely unrelated to the cost of the service which one uses. What has happened to the “user pays” principle?

This proposal clearly is a case of the city administration penalising property owners for heeding the municipal campaign to curb their water usage, a huge problem in and of itself. But it also points to other areas of concern about the municipal administration.

For example, it seems the city did not properly consider adequate scenario planning relating to both its long-term water supply and demand. If it had done so, the resultant risk analysis of all options flowing from the scenario planning – including the risk of an unintended drop in income as a result of the needed cuts in water consumption – would have been timeously identified. In properly configured risk assessment, suitable measures to meet this unintended consequence could have been set in place resulting in either cuts to municipal expenditure or raising income elsewhere. There appears to be absolutely no evidence city officials did this level of work.

More compellingly, long-term residents of Cape Town have known since forever that water is a sparse commodity especially during the beautifully long but dry summers, and that the city’s storage capacity is dangerously inadequate in a protracted drought season and requires augmenting. I have read elsewhere of the city’s long-term planning for coastal storm surges and flooding. But planning to take account of 50-year drought forecasts – or any other time horizon based on local and global factors – is equally critical to water security for residents. Yet, indications are the city only put together a task team in May 2017 to deal with the crisis occasioned by the latest, relentless drought.

Why have we not seen a detailed roll-out over the past decade of plans – any plan – to ensure that the city has sufficient water to offset crippling water shortages as a result of drought? It is simply not good enough for the city – or the province – to sit with folded arms on the basis that infrastructure for providing water is a national mandate.
What programme does the city have in place to fix leaks in pipes, to monitor waste by users and to identify new water sources?
Given comments by mayor Patricia de Lille that only half of Capetonians have adopted water saving measures, how are the city’s major water users regularly monitored and called to order?

The city appears to have been averse to dealing with the most cogent other factor affecting the availability of water – growth over many years in population numbers and the concomitant demand for water. Growth is a good thing, but it requires pre-emptive planning. Related to this is the city’s generally laissez faire approach towards private sector investment. For example, what has the city done to manage the rampant upmarket commercial and private residential property development in the past decade to ensure that resources are not strained? Has the city set in place impact assessments to ensure that an appropriate additional fee can be extracted from developers that will augment funds for future water provision projects?

The problematic imposition of the penalty rates tariff to offset reduced income from water shows that city officials are wholly incapable of finding creative and sustainable solutions to water challenges. Instead of a stick which applies to all, the city should consider even more heavily penalising those who use way above their daily allocation in the current drought period.
Instead of a non-refundable fee per property owner for installing additional water provisioning infrastructure, the city should consider other funding options. These may include a loan, even an interest-free one – rather than a donation – from each ratepayer equal to the additional fee which it intends levying now. Such a loan could be credited to ratepayers as a future discount on water tariffs.
Instead of big infrastructure projects, smaller, regular, incremental improvements to water provisioning and management infrastructure should be considered.

To its credit, the city appears to have heeded case studies like that contained in an MIT research paper published in October last year which showed that this incremental approach may be preferable to expensive, larger-scale projects which only come on-stream after an acute water crisis has passed. That study points to a controversial multi-billion-dollar desalination facility in Melbourne, Australia, which was approved 10 years into what turned out to be a 12-year drought and was commissioned in 2012, three years after the drought ended. The study recommends building smaller, modular desalination plants that allow up-scaling if the need arises.

I have no doubt that creative, open-minded and critical thinkers who have the best interests at heart of all the residents and ratepayers of this city, will come up with even better solutions.

Finally, returning to the city’s quite silly proposal to burden ratepayers with an extra rates fee in lieu of a bigger water bill. This is akin to a customer who goes into a grocery store to buy tomatoes and, although the tomato shelves are empty, finds himself saddled by the store owner with a bill for a bag of potatoes, without the customer requesting or even receiving the potatoes! As far as I know, there is absolutely no basis in law for such a bizarre commercial transaction.

Cape Town’s Silly Extra Tariff for Saving Water
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